as apparently any schoolkid in Maine can tell you, fire has devastated the city of Portland four times. once when it was a small settlement — settlers fled and local tribes burned the structures; once when it was a fort; once during the French-Indian War; and finally on Independence Day in 1866. my guide at the Observatory said that students are told that children playing with fireworks were to blame for the 1866 fire but sadly that’s not actually the case.
the fire started in a warehouse on the docks early in the morning and firefighters quickly extinguished the blaze. or thought they did. in fact, embers smoldered late into the day and eventually the fire caught once again. the building next door housed a sugar refinery and the highly combustible material went up quickly. the direction and strength of wind are largely to blame for the spread of the fire and extent of the damage. the fire continued north-northeast from the wharf and towards Munjoy Hill mostly unchecked. my guide said what preserved the Observatory was simply that the wind died down in the evening not, as myth would have it, that the owner sat on the roof with buckets and buckets of water to douse any flames that encroached. (he did, however keep vigilant watch and put out embers as soon as they alighted on the shingles, so perhaps things might have gone differently had he not been watching out for his investment.)
prior to the Great Chicago Fire, the 1866 one in Portland was the largest urban fire in U.S. history. part of what made it so famous were telegraph cables that allowed the transmission of the story all across the country. within twenty-four hours, people in San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, Washington knew the details of the fire; it was a truly national news event.